I have been going out to the Big Bend area for many years, largely as a member of a group of high school friends who began to camp and backpack in the National Park back in the 70’s. Some time in the mid to late 80’s we began camping in the Black Gap National Wildlife Refuge, located just east of Big Bend National Park. We found we enjoyed the remoteness and relative solitude of Black Gap. We also found that turning southeast on 2627 off of U.S. 385 just north of Persimmon Gap, put us in Hallie Stillwell’s neighborhood. We found Hallie holding court at the Stillwell Store, always welcoming, friendly to all, accommodating the curious among us with any one of the many anecdotes that she seemed to effortlessly recall from a library full of experiences she had acquired during her rather full life at the ranch along the Maravillas.
It would be safe to say that there have not been too many people who have lived such an eventful life as Hallie Stillwell. Born Hallie Marie Crawford in Waco, Texas, in 1897, Hallie’s family always seemed to be moving west. As a child she drove a covered wagon to New Mexico where her family homesteaded land. As a teenager she taught school in Presidio just across the river from Pancho Villa’s Mexican revolution. Then, in 1918, Hallie married Roy Stillwell, a man twice her age and moved with him to his remote ranch along the Maravillas Creek some forty-five miles south of the nearest town, Marathon and 20 miles north of the Rio Grande River, the Mexico border.
Making the transition from schoolteacher to ranch women was no small feat as Hallie broke with the prevailing tradition of the day for rancher’s wives and learned the ranching business at her husband’s side. For seventy years Hallie punched cattle, wrestled with bankers, survived the Depression and numerous droughts and after Roy passed away in 1948 she did whatever needed to be done to keep the ranch going. From working at cafes, a flower shop and a beauty parlor, Hallie eventually became a justice of the peace and a popular newspaper columnist, which led to a successful stint as a popular speaker on the lecture circuit. Later, Hallie and the family built and operated a trading post and popular RV park adjacent to Big Bend National Park. In her later years, Hallie authored two books about her life “I’ll Gather My Geese” and “My Goose is Cooked” and also co-authored a third “How Come It’s Called That.”
Hallie Stillwell was bestowed many honors in her life. Among her many honors includes the induction into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame. In 1973 she was elected president of the West Texas Historical and Scientific Society. She has been recognized by the Texas senate, named a “Yellow Rose of Texas” by the governor and designated a “Grande Dame of Texas” by Texas Monthly. She became affectionately known by the various titles, “Queen of the Big Bend”, “Legend of the Big Bend,” “Sweetheart of the Terlingua Chili Cookoff”, and “Bicentennial Queen”, every one attesting to her status as a living legend, yet Hallie simply preferred the more direct designation of, “ranch women”.
With each meeting with Hallie serving to pique our interests as filmmakers, and motivated by the desire to preserve the recollections of a living legend, co- producer James Flowers and I video taped extensive interviews with Hallie in 1993. Hallie’s daughter, Dadie Potter and the rest of the family could not have been more gracious and helpful, as they gave us unfettered access to all areas of the ranch. But, at the time I was not aware that others had made films about Hallie. I later found that these films were, by in large, your typical biographical documentaries, following a rather standard format of listing the significant moments of Hallie’s life, if you will. Fine films, indeed, but I felt it would be redundant to simply follow that pattern.
What I’ve tried to do in this film, “Recollections of a Pioneer,” is something a little different and that is to share what is unique to both Hallie and the Big Bend country. Just what was it about this country that seemed to bring out the best in Hallie? And, what was it about Hallie that made her able to see the beauty among the ruggedness of the Big Bend? As we all know, the Big Bend of west Texas is rough country and can be terribly unforgiving at times, so it took tough people like Hallie to make a lasting life here. But, Hallie also had a reflective side to her, a natural curiosity about the world around her that was personal and that she held close. That something was her abiding connection to the land.
That deeply held, almost spiritual connection is what I have attempted to reveal in this film, slowly, meditatively and with a deep respect for both Hallie and the Big Bend that she loved so dearly.
As author, Kenneth B. Ragsdale wrote in his book “Big Bend Country”, “People throughout Texas either knew, claim they knew, or wanted to know Hallie Stillwell.”